Military history

EDUCATION IN THE THIRD REICH

On April 30, 1934, Bernhard Rust, an Obergruppenfuehrer in the S.A., onetime Gauleiter of Hanover, a Nazi Party member and friend of Hitler since the early Twenties, was named Reich Minister of Science, Education and Popular Culture. In the bizarre, topsy-turvy world of National Socialism, Rust was eminently fitted for his task. Since 1930 he had been an unemployed provincial schoolmaster, having been dismissed in that year by the local republican authorities at Hanover for certain manifestations of instability of mind, though his fanatical Nazism may have been partly responsible for his ouster. For Dr. Rust preached the Nazi gospel with the zeal of a Goebbels and the fuzziness of a Rosenberg. Named Prussian Minister of Science, Art and Education in February 1933, he boasted that he had succeeded overnight in “liquidating the school as an institution of intellectual acrobatics.”

To such a mindless man was now entrusted dictatorial control over German science, the public schools, the institutions of higher learning and the youth organizations. For education in the Third Reich, as Hitler envisaged it, was not to be confined to stuffy classrooms but to be furthered by a Spartan, political and martial training in the successive youth groups and to reach its climax not so much in the universities and engineering colleges, which absorbed but a small minority, but first, at the age of eighteen, in compulsory labor service and then in service, as conscripts, in the armed forces.

Hitler’s contempt for “professors” and the intellectual academic life had peppered the pages of Mein Kampf, in which he had set down some of his ideas on education. “The whole education by a national state,” he had written, “must aim primarily not at the stuffing with mere knowledge but at building bodies which are physically healthy to the core.” But, even more important, he had stressed in his book the importance of winning over and then training the youth in the service “of a new national state”—a subject he returned to often after he became the German dictator. “When an opponent declares, ‘I will not come over to your side,’” he said in a speech on November 6, 1933, “I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already … What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.’” And on May 1, 1937, he declared, “This new Reich will give its youth to no one, but will itself take youth and give to youth its own education and its own upbringing.” It was not an idle boast; that was precisely what was happening.

The German schools, from first grade through the universities, were quickly Nazified. Textbooks were hastily rewritten, curricula were changed, Mein Kampf was made—in the words of Der Deutsche Erzieher, official organ of the educators—“our infallible pedagogical guiding star” and teachers who failed to see the new light were cast out. Most instructors had been more or less Nazi in sentiment when not outright party members. To strengthen their ideology they were dispatched to special schools for intensive training in National Socialist principles, emphasis being put on Hitler’s racial doctrines.

Every person in the teaching profession, from kindergarten through the universities, was compelled to join the National Socialist Teachers’ League which, by law, was held “responsible for the execution of the ideological and political co-ordination of all teachers in accordance with the National Socialist doctrine.” The Civil Service Act of 1937 required teachers to be “the executors of the will of the party-supported State” and to be ready “at any time to defend without reservation the National Socialist State.” An earlier decree had classified them as civil servants and thus subject to the racial laws. Jews, of course, were forbidden to teach. All teachers took an oath to “be loyal and obedient to Adolf Hitler.” Later, no man could teach who had not first served in the S.A., the Labor Service or the Hitler Youth. Candidates for instructorships in the universities had to attend for six weeks an observation camp where their views and character were studied by Nazi experts and reported to the Ministry of Education, which issued licenses to teach based on the candidates’ political “reliability.”

Prior to 1933, the German public schools had been under the jurisdiction of the local authorities and the universities under that of the individual states. Now all were brought under the iron rule of the Reich Minister of Education. It was he who also appointed the rectors and the deans of the universities, who formerly had been elected by the full professors of the faculty. He also appointed the leaders of the university students’ union, to which all students had to belong, and of the lecturers union, comprising all instructors. The N.S. Association of University Lecturers, under the tight leadership of old Nazi hands, was given a decisive role in selecting who was to teach and to see that what they taught was in accordance with Nazi theories.

The result of so much Nazification was catastrophic for German education and for German learning. History was so falsified in the new textbooks and by the teachers in their lectures that it became ludicrous. The teaching of the “racial sciences,” exalting the Germans as the master race and the Jews as breeders of almost all the evil there was in the world, was even more so. In the University of Berlin alone, where so many great scholars had taught in the past, the new rector, a storm trooper and by profession a veterinarian, instituted twenty-five new courses in Rassenkunde—racial science—and by the time he had really taken the university apart he had eighty-six courses connected with his own profession.

The teaching of the natural sciences, in which Germany had been so pre-eminent for generations, deteriorated rapidly. Great teachers such as Einstein and Franck in physics, Haber, Willstaetter and Warburg in chemistry, were fired or retired. Those who remained, many of them, were bitten by the Nazi aberrations and attempted to apply them to pure science. They began to teach what they called German physics, German chemistry, German mathematics. Indeed, in 1937 there appeared a journal called Deutsche Mathematik, and its first editorial solemnly proclaimed that any idea that mathematics could be judged nonracially carried “within itself the germs of destruction of German science.”

The hallucinations of these Nazi scientists became unbelievable, even to a layman. “German Physics?” asked Professor Philipp Lenard of Heidelberg University, who was one of the more learned and internationally respected scientists of the Third Reich. “‘But,’ it will be replied, ‘science is and remains international.’ It is false. In reality, science, like every other human product, is racial and conditioned by blood.” Professor Rudolphe Tomaschek, director of the Institute of Physics at Dresden, went further. “Modern Physics,” he wrote, “is an instrument of [world] Jewry for the destruction of Nordic science … True physics is the creation of the German spirit … In fact, all European science is the fruit of Aryan, or, better, German thought.” Professor Johannes Stark, head of the German National Institute of Physical Science, thought so too. It would be found, he said, that the “founders of research in physics, and the great discoverers from Galileo to Newton to the physical pioneers of our time, were almost exclusively Aryan, predominantly of the Nordic race.”

There was also Professor Wilhelm Mueller, of the Technical College of Aachen, who in a book entitled Jewry and Science saw a world-wide Jewish plot to pollute science and thereby destroy civilization. To him Einstein, with his theory of relativity, was the archvillain. The Einstein theory, on which so much of modern physics is based, was to this singular Nazi professor “directed from beginning to end toward the goal of transforming the living—that is, the non-Jewish—world of living essence, born from a mother earth and bound up with blood, and bewitching it into spectral abstraction in which all individual differences of peoples and nations, and all inner limits of the races, are lost in unreality, and in which only an unsubstantial diversity of geometric dimensions survives which produces all events out of the compulsion of its godless subjection to laws.” The world-wide acclaim given to Einstein on the publication of his theory of relativity, Professor Mueller proclaimed, was really only a rejoicing over “the approach of Jewish world rule which was to force down German manhood irrevocably and eternally to the level of the lifeless slave.”

To Professor Ludwig Bieberback, of the University of Berlin, Einstein was “an alien mountebank.” Even to Professor Lenard, “the Jew conspicuously lacks understanding for the truth … being in this respect in contrast to the Aryan research scientist with his careful and serious will to truth … Jewish physics is thus a phantom and a phenomenon of degeneration of fundamental German Physics.”7

And yet from 1905 to 1931 ten German Jews had been awarded Nobel Prizes for their contributions to science.

   During the Second Reich, the university professors, like the Protestant clergy, had given blind support to the conservative government and its expansionist aims, and the lecture halls had been breeding grounds of virulent nationalism and anti-Semitism. The Weimar Republic had insisted on complete academic freedom, and one result had been that the vast majority of university teachers, antiliberal, antidemocratic, anti-Semitic as they were, had helped to undermine the democratic regime. Most professors were fanatical nationalists who wished the return of a conservative, monarchical Germany. And though to many of them, before 1933, the Nazis were too rowdy and violent to attract their allegiance, their preachments helped prepare the ground for the coming of Nazism. By 1932 the majority of students appeared to be enthusiastic for Hitler.

It was surprising to some how many members of the university faculties knuckled under to the Nazification of higher learning after 1933. Though official figures put the number of professors and instructors dismissed during the first five years of the regime at 2,800—about one fourth of the total number—the proportion of those who lost their posts through defying National Socialism was, as Professor Wilhelm Roepke, himself dismissed from the University of Marburg in 1933, said, “exceedingly small.” Though small, there were names famous in the German academic world:Karl Jaspers, E. I. Gumbel, Theodor Litt, Karl Barth, Julius Ebbinghaus and dozens of others. Most of them emigrated, first to Switzerland, Holland and England and eventually to America. One of them, Professor Theodor Lessing, who had fled to Czechoslovakia, was tracked down by Nazi thugs and murdered in Marienbad on August 31, 1933.

A large majority of professors, however, remained at their posts, and as early as the autumn of 1933 some 960 of them, led by such luminaries as Professor Sauerbruch, the surgeon, Heidegger, the existentialist philosopher, and Pinder, the art historian, took a public vow to support Hitler and the National Socialist regime.

“It was a scene of prostitution,” Professor Roepke later wrote, “that has stained the honorable history of German learning.”8 And as Professor Julius Ebbinghaus, looking back over the shambles in 1945, said, “The German universities failed, while there was still time, to oppose publicly with all their power the destruction of knowledge and of the democratic state. They failed to keep the beacon of freedom and right burning during the night of tyranny.”9

The cost of such failure was great. After six years of Nazification the number of university students dropped by more than one half—from 127,920 to 58,325. The decline in enrollment at the institutes of technology, from which Germany got its scientists and engineers, was even greater—from 20,474 to 9,554. Academic standards fell dizzily. By 1937 there was not only a shortage of young men in the sciences and engineering but a decline in their qualifications. Long before the outbreak of the war the chemical industry, busily helping to further Nazi rearmament, was complaining through its organ, Die Chemische Industrie, that Germany was losing its leadership in chemistry. Not only the national economy but national defense itself was being jeopardized, it complained, and it blamed the shortage of young scientists and their mediocre caliber on the poor quality of the technical colleges.

Nazi Germany’s loss, as it turned out, was the free world’s gain, especially in the race to be the first with the atom bomb. The story of the successful efforts of Nazi leaders, led by Himmler, to hamstring the atomic-energy program is too long and involved to be recounted here. It was one of the ironies of fate that the development of the bomb in the United States owed so much to two men who had been exiled because of race from the Nazi and Fascist dictatorships: Einstein from Germany and Fermi from Italy.

To Adolf Hitler it was not so much the public schools, from which he himself had dropped out so early in life, but the organizations of the Hitler Youth on which he counted to educate the youth of Germany for the ends he had in mind. In the years of the Nazi Party’s struggle for power the Hitler Youth movement had not amounted to much. In 1932, the last year of the Republic, its total enrollment was only 107,956, compared to some ten million youths who belonged to the various organizations united in the Reich Committee of German Youth Associations. In no country in the world had there been a youth movement of such vitality and numbers as in republican Germany. Hitler, realizing this, was determined to take it over and Nazify it.

His chief lieutenant for this task was a handsome young man of banal mind but of great driving force, Baldur von Schirach, who, falling under Hitler’s spell, had joined the party in 1925 at the age of eighteen and in 1931 had been named Youth Leader of the Nazi Party. Among the scar-faced, brawling Brownshirts, he had the curious look of an American college student, fresh and immature, and this perhaps was due to his having had, as we have seen, American forebears (including two signers of the Declaration of Independence).10

Schirach was named “Youth Leader of the German Reich” in June 1933. Aping the tactics of his elder party leaders, his first action was to send an armed band of fifty husky Hitler Youth men to occupy the national offices of the Reich Committee of German Youth Associations, where an old Prussian Army officer, General Vogt, head of the committee, was put to rout. Schirach next took on one of the most celebrated of German naval heroes, Admiral von Trotha, who had been Chief of Staff of the High Seas Fleet in the First World War and who was now president of the Youth Associations. The venerable admiral too was put to flight and his position and organization were dissolved. Millions of dollars’ worth of property, chiefly in hundreds of youth hostels scattered throughout Germany, was seized.

The concordat of July 20, 1933, had specifically provided for the unhindered continuance of the Catholic Youth Association. On December 1, 1936, Hitler decreed a law outlawing it and all other non-Nazi organizations for young people.

… All of the German youth in the Reich is organized within the Hitler Youth.

The German youth, besides being reared within the family and schools, shall be educated physically, intellectually and morally in the spirit of National Socialism … through the Hitler Youth.11

Schirach, whose office had formerly been subordinate to the Ministry of Education, was made responsible directly to Hitler.

This half-baked young man of twenty-nine, who wrote maudlin verse in praise of Hitler (“this genius grazing the stars”) and followed Rosenberg in his weird paganism and Streicher in his virulent anti-Semitism, had become the dictator of youth in the Third Reich.

From the age of six to eighteen, when conscription for the Labor Service and the Army began, girls as well as boys were organized in the various cadres of the Hitler Youth. Parents found guilty of trying to keep their children from joining the organization were subject to heavy prison sentences even though, as in some cases, they merely objected to having their daughters enter some of the services where cases of pregnancy had reached scandalous proportions.

From the age of six to ten, a boy served a sort of apprenticeship for the Hitler Youth as a Pimpf. Each youngster was given a performance book in which would be recorded his progress through the entire Nazi youth movement, including his ideological growth. At ten, after passing suitable tests in athletics, camping and Nazified history, he graduated into the Jungvolk (“Young Folk”), where he took the following oath:

In the presence of this blood banner, which represents our Fuehrer, I swear to devote all my energies and my strength to the savior of our country, Adolf Hitler. I am willing and ready to give up my life for him, so help me God.

At fourteen the boy entered the Hitler Youth proper and remained there until he was eighteen, when he passed into the Labor Service and the Army. It was a vast organization organized on paramilitary lines similar to the S.A. and in which the youngsters approaching manhood received systematic training not only in camping, sports and Nazi ideology but in soldiering. On many a weekend in the environs of Berlin this writer would be interrupted in his picnicking by Hitler Youths scrambling through the woods or over the heath, rifles at the ready and heavy army packs on their backs.

Sometimes the young ladies would be playing at soldiering, too, for the Hitler Youth movement did not neglect the maidens. From ten to fourteen, German girls were enrolled as Jungmaedel—literally, “young maidens”—and they too had a uniform, made up of a white blouse, full blue skirt, socks and heavy—and most unfeminine—marching shoes. Their training was much like that of the boys of the same age and included long marches on weekends with heavy packs and the usual indoctrination in the Nazi philosophy. But emphasis was put on the role of women in the Third Reich—to be, above all, healthy mothers of healthy children. This was stressed even more when the girls became, at fourteen, members of the B.D.M.—Bund Deutscher Maedel (League of German Maidens).

At eighteen, several thousand of the girls in the B.D.M. (they remained in it until 21) did a year’s service on the farms—their so-called Land Jahr, which was equivalent to the Labor Service of the young men. Their task was to help both in the house and in the fields. The girls lived sometimes in the farmhouses and often in small camps in rural districts from which they were taken by truck early each morning to the farms. Moral problems soon arose. The presence of a pretty young city girl sometimes disrupted a peasant’s household, and angry complaints from parents about their daughters’ having been made pregnant on the farms began to be heard. But that wasn’t the only problem. Usually a girls’ camp was located near a Labor Service camp for young men. This juxtaposition seems to have made for many pregnancies too. One couplet—a take-off on the “Strength through Joy” movement of the Labor Front, but it applied especially to the Land Jahr of the young maidens—went the rounds of Germany:

In the fields and on the heath
I lose Strength through Joy.

Similar moral problems also arose during the Household Year for Girls, in which some half a million Hitler Youth maidens spent a year at domestic service in a city household. Actually, the more sincere Nazis did not consider them moral problems at all. On more than one occasion I listened to women leaders of the B.D.M.—they were invariably of the plainer type and usually unmarried—lecture their young charges on the moral and patriotic duty of bearing children for Hitler’s Reich—within wedlock if possible, but without it if necessary.

By the end of 1938 the Hitler Youth numbered 7,728,259. Large as this number was, obviously some four million youth had managed to stay out of the organization, and in March 1939 the government issued a law conscripting all youth into the Hitler Youth on the same basis as they were drafted into the Army. Recalcitrant parents were warned that their children would be taken away from them and put into orphanages or other homes unless they enrolled.

   The final twist to education in the Third Reich came in the establishment of three types of schools for the training of the elite: the Adolf Hitler Schools, under the direction of the Hitler Youth, the National Political Institutes of Education and the Order Castles—the last two under the aegis of the party. The Adolf Hitler Schools took the most promising youngsters from the Jungvolk at the age of twelve and gave them six years of intensive training for leadership in the party and in the public services. The pupils lived at the school under Spartan discipline and on graduation were eligible for the university. There were ten such schools founded after 1937, the principal one being the Akademie at Brunswick.

The purpose of the Political Institutes of Education was to restore the type of education formerly given in the old Prussian military academies. This, according to one official commentary, cultivated “the soldierly spirit, with its attributes of courage, sense of duty and simplicity.” To this was added special training in Nazi principles. The schools were under the supervision of the S.S., which furnished the headmasters and most of the teachers. Three such schools were established in 1933 and grew to thirty-one before the outbreak of the war, three of them for women.

At the very top of the pyramid were the so-called Order Castles, the Ordensburgen. In these, with their atmosphere of the castles of the Order of Teutonic Knights of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, were trained the elite of the Nazi elite. The knightly order had been based on the principle of absolute obedience to the Master, the Ordensmeister, and devoted to the German conquest of the Slavic lands in the East and the enslavement of the natives. The Nazi Order Castles had similar discipline and purposes. Only the most fanatical young National Socialists were chosen, usually from the top ranks of the graduates of the Adolf Hitler Schools and the Political Institutes. There were four Castles, and a student attended successively all of them. The first of six years was spent in one which specialized in the “racial sciences” and other aspects of Nazi ideology. The emphasis was on mental training and discipline, with physical training subordinated to it. This was reversed the second year at a Castle where athletics and sports, including mountain climbing and parachute jumping, came first. The third Castle, where the students spent the next year and a half, offered political and military instruction. Finally, in the fourth and last stage of his education, the student was sent for a year and a half to the Ordensburg in Marienburg in East Prussia, near the Polish frontier. There, within the walls of the very Order Castle which had been a stronghold of the Teutonic Knights five centuries before, his political and military training was concentrated on the Eastern question and Germany’s need (and right!) of expanding into the Slavic lands in its eternal search for Lebensraum—an excellent preparation, as it turned out and no doubt was meant to turn out, for the events of 1939 and thereafter.

   In such a manner were the youth trained for life and work and death in the Third Reich. Though their minds were deliberately poisoned, their regular schooling interrupted, their homes largely replaced so far as their rearing went, the boys and the girls, the young men and women, seemed immensely happy, filled with a zest for the life of a Hitler Youth. And there was no doubt that the practice of bringing the children of all classes and walks of life together, where those who had come from poverty or riches, from a laborer’s home or a peasant’s or a businessman’s, or an aristocrat’s, shared common tasks, was good and healthy in itself. In most cases it did no harm to a city boy and girl to spend six months in the compulsory Labor Service, where they lived outdoors and learned the value of manual labor and of getting along with those of different backgrounds. No one who traveled up and down Germany in those days and talked with the young in their camps and watched them work and play and sing could fail to see that, however sinister the teaching, here was an incredibly dynamic youth movement.

The young in the Third Reich were growing up to have strong and healthy bodies, faith in the future of their country and in themselves and a sense of fellowship and camaraderie that shattered all class and economic and social barriers. I thought of that later, in the May days of 1940, when along the road between Aachen and Brussels one saw the contrast between the German soldiers, bronzed and clean-cut from a youth spent in the sunshine on an adequate diet, and the first British war prisoners, with their hollow chests, round shoulders, pasty complexions and bad teeth—tragic examples of the youth that England had neglected so irresponsibly in the years between the wars.

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